A piece about the French expat community in London, titled “London, France’s sixth biggest city”, is the most shared article on the BBC News website as I begin to write this post.
That such an article would be popular among BBC News readers is not surprising: the idea of French people crossing the Channel en masse to find a more vibrant, fluid and color-blind society, and staying there despite the mediocre weather and exorbitant rents, is appealing to both London fans and French bashers alike. (The view that French people move to London because it’s the closest large English-speaking city is not mentioned)
What’s more baffling is why the BBC News Magazine editors, who had recently shown a laudable willingness to take oft-repeated but bogus factoids to task, would decide to publish a piece based on such a worthless piece of statistics.
For the idea that “between 300,000 and 400,000 French citizens live in the British capital” is just plain laughable.
Where does this figure come from? Like in previous articles on the same subject, from just one source: the French Embassy in London. Reading the article, you could be forgiven to think that the number is an official estimate from Insee, the French statistical agency. In fact, the BBC is being (unintentionally?) imprecise here: what really comes from Insee are the official population figures of French cities (used to determine that London would be the 6th French city) and not the French population in London.
So what does the French Embassy say?
More or less 120,000 French are registered at the general consulates in London and Edinburgh, but we assess the real number of French living in the UK as being between 300,000 and 400,000, a huge majority of them living in London.
Let’s note en passant that the “between 300,000 and 400,000” figure applies to the number of French people living in the UK, not London proper, and that a “huge majority” doesn’t mean “all of them”.
But that is a trifling matter compared to the unforgivable sin of the article: taking the words of French diplomats at face value.
Because, on its face, the figure really sounds dubious. Quick tip for journos: while not a foolproof method, checking Wikipedia is usually a good way to assess if there’s something really wrong with your data. The Wikipedia article on London cites the 2001 UK census, which estimated that the largest foreign community (measured by country of birth) in London was the Indian community. Total population: 172,162. At the time, the number of people born in France and living in London was 38,130. So did the French population in London really grow ten-fold in 10 years?
In a word: no. In two words: hell, no.
Firstly, it is well-known that the French consulate figures are inflated. In a 2007 article, an observer noted that (pdf):
In the U.K., [the] consulates estimate the French population at 300,000, whereas our study puts it at 130,000 (±15,000).
Who was that? Well, none other than a senior statistician working for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, being interviewed in an Insee journal.
Secondly, and crucially, official estimates on the number of French people living in London do exist. One is done by the British Office for National Statistics based on data from its Labour Force Survey. The latest figure (XLS file, sheet 2.4), for the year 2010-2011, puts the number of French nationals living in London at around 70,000 (+/- 14,000).
Make no mistake: this is a large number. And French people make up the fourth largest foreign community (at least by country of nationality) in London, after Indians, Poles and Irish. But the official figure is still 5 times less than the one bandied about by the BBC.
Somehow, “London, 68th French city” doesn’t have quite that same je ne sais quoi to it.